Modern art?
MY FOUR CENTAVOS - Dean Andy Bautista (The Philippine Star) - January 25, 2014 - 12:00am

Returning on PAL from Singapore to Manila the other day, I chanced upon a Filipino teen love drama entitled “A moment in time.” Starring Coco Martin and Julia Montes, the movie plot is familiar — a struggling artist falls in love with the only daughter of a financially successful couple. I cannot tell you how the movie ended as PAL is one of the few remaining airlines that stops the movie service 30 minutes before landing. But love is not this week’s topic anyway. Rather I wanted to highlight that during the courtship, Coco’s character professes his affection for the female lead by painting his feelings on various walls in the metropolis. The messages were romantic and artful, yet they were being placed on other people’s properties without their consent.

Coming out of the airport, I paid more attention to the state of our walls. Unfortunately, my preliminary assessment is not good. Many walls have been defaced by markings that are probably the handiwork of wayward youth and vandals rather than hopeful lovers. They do not only make the surroundings look untidy but engender a sense of lawlessness.

*      *      *      *

Apparently, the practice of scribbling messages and pictures on walls and edifices has a sublime past. It dates back to ancient times. Graffiti is the plural form of the Italian graffito, which literally means “scratched.” Interestingly, antiquated graffiti may still be seen in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And although many still lump graffiti and the modern coinage “street art” together into one category, there is a growing recognition of the latter’s gritty contribution to community art.

Indeed, it may be sad that all art (whether music, painting, sculpture, dance, etc…) is produced by a fundamental desire to express and convey an idea, emotion, or concept. Oftentimes, expressing one’s self is not enough. There must also be someone to convey to. Which is why art is often intertwined with exhibition. The books must be published, the artworks displayed, the dances performed. And the vain and the KSP (i.e., kulang sa pansin) wish to convey it on the most public of buildings and structures, for all the world to see.

There was a man arrested for defacing US dollar bills. He would write Vietnam War protest messages on the currency (which is a crime). When finally caught and convicted he was asked why he did it. He said money is the one object no one will throw away. As the bills are exchanged from person to person his messages get to travel all over the world.

*      *      *      *

Yet where does one draw the line between vandalism and art? Or rather, if it is all vandalism, are there certain forms of street art which are transformative in nature, elevating the work above the petty crime? A good example would be the elusive Banksy. This England-based graffiti artist’s work is immediately recognizable by its distinctive stenciling spray-paint technique. His work is often found in unique locations and provides socio-political symbolism and commentary to current events.

Interestingly, his “graffiti” is often so good that establishments sometimes decide to allow them to remain and art auctioneers make attempts to sell them. Speaking out from the other side of the fence against the proposition that street art is a form of vandalism, he has said, “there are crimes that become innocent and even glorious through their splendour, number and excess.”

On the other end of the spectrum are plain graffiti which have seemingly no redeeming value. I am referring to those gang tags and hastily scrawled fraternal symbols polluting the city walls. The message conveyed is less art than an odious declaration of one gang’s claim of territory over a particular “turf.” It is indicative of society’s laxity and lawlessness which allows for their proliferation.

Another problem is that with the growing number of “street artists” there is a lot of “practicing” going on. Hence, many cities need to contend with the fledgling left-overs of would-be artists. According to one US survey, 85% of graffiti are tags while another 10% is gang communication. That leaves only 5% of ostensible art. What to do with the other young perpetrators practicing their skills? According to a UK judge who sentenced the DPM graffiti crew in Southwark to two years imprisonment for defacing public property, “it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that some examples of your handiwork show considerable artistic talent. The trouble is that it is has been sprayed all over other people’s property without their consent and that is simply vandalism.”

But is imprisonment the answer? Some have suggested that offenders be made to log in a certain number of community service hours as punishment, perhaps cleaning up some of the ugly graffiti left by them or their peers. This may have a more positive and rehabilitating effect than simply jailing them.

Still others see graffiti not as art or gang tags but as a form of protest. It has been claimed that the Syrian revolution began when a group of protesters were caught spray-painting anti-government messages across the walls. Following their harsh maltreatment by the police, a series of peaceful protests were staged, catalyzing a chain of events which led to the current quagmire of conflict.

Indisputably, there are many reasons why one may wish to deface other people’s property. And while we all want to be heard, this is not a license to argue that the freedom of expression is absolute. There should be (and there are) safeguards and standards so that its exercise does not impinge upon the rights of others. Nevertheless, as times change perhaps the way we think about graffiti needs to evolve as well. Is it detestable vandalism or transcendent art? Only you can say. Like the saying goes: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

*      *      *      *

Greetings: Heavenly best wishes to people power icon and former President Cory Aquino who would have turned 81 today. May she continue to pray for our beloved country.

*      *      *      *

“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” — Woody Allen


*      *      *      *



  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with